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Marine Corps Times
March 5, 2001

The People Zapper

This new secret weapon doesn't kill, but it sure does burn

By C. Mark Brinkley, Times Staff Writer

The Marine Corps is on the verge of unveiling perhaps the biggest breakthrough in weapons technology since the atomic bomb: a nonlethal weapon that fires directed energy at human targets.

The weapon, named the Vehicle-Mounted Active Denial System, focuses energy into a beam of micromillimeter waves designed to stop an individual in his tracks, said Marine Col. George Fenton, director of the Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate, in an exclusive interview with Marine Corps Times on Feb. 23.

The energy, which falls near microwaves on the electromagnetic spectrum, causes the moisture in a person's skin to heat up rapidly, creating a burning sensation similar to a hot light bulb pressed against one's flesh.

When used as directed - that is, briefly - the weapon causes no long-term problems, Fenton said.

The amount of time the weapon must be trained on an individual to cause permanent damage or death is classified.

The directorate in Quantico, Va., was planning to unveil the technology in April after briefing Marine Commandant Gen. James Jones, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Michael Ryan and senior Defense Department civilians, still not appointed.

But plans were accelerated and much of the program declassified after Marine Corps Times learned of the story.

Plans now call for an unveiling and demonstration for military and congressional leaders in March at Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M.

The Marine Corps leads the directorate, but the VMADS project is co-sponsored by the Air Force, which has conducted much of the research and development. The technology could move into the acquisition phase of making a prototype as soon as this summer, when the project would be taken over by the Air Force's Electronic Systems Center at Hanscom Air Force Base, Mass., near Boston.

Changing world

The need for a nonlethal means for stopping an aggressor is a direct response to today's world of unknown enemies, terrorist threats, peacekeeping and other-than-war operations, where small numbers of troops find themselves facing off against large crowds of civilians.

"How do you deal with that?" Fenton said. "You see commanders saying, 'Give me some other type of tool.' "

Not since the advent of gunpowder and the splitting of the atom have armies seen such a leap in technology. Weapons that fire lasers, electricity and sound waves have been in development for years.

But the VMADS system is the first nonlethal, directed-energy weapon designed specifically for use against humans. Marine officials said the initial plans include mounting it atop a Humvee and using it for peacekeeping operations.

An aircraft-mounted version is also on the drawing boards.

Possible applications include crowd control, perimeter defense of expeditionary encampments or airfields, ship self-defense to prevent attacks like that on the USS Cole in October 2000 and other disruption of enemy activities.

The weapon's range remains classified, but project officials expect it will exceed 750 meters, putting Marines operating the weapon beyond the reach of traditional small-arms fire.

Marines could then engage a crowd from afar, directing two-second bursts of energy without risk of being overcome by the mob. When the beam is waved over the group, individuals would immediately experience intense pain, causing confusion and driving the crowd to disperse.

Safety matters

Of paramount concern to military officials and political leaders will be whether or not this weapon poses long-term health risks.

Some less-than-lethal weapon developments have been scuttled because of criticism by human-rights groups that the concepts posed potentially deadly or cruel hazards, such as blindness. A few programs were stopped dead in their tracks by such complaints, including certain "dazzling" lasers that posed the risk of permanent eye damage, Fenton said.

"It was OK to kill someone, but not OK to blind them. That was considered cruel and unusual," said John Pike, a longtime space and military policy analyst and founder of GlobalSecurity.org, a nonprofit organization dedicated to international peace and security.

Initial studies of long-term effects on the VMADS system have been completed, but the findings have not been released publicly. Advanced studies on the effects of the weapon are ongoing.

How it works

By utilizing certain portions of the electromagnetic spectrum, the VMADS weapon penetrates the victim's skin - but only to a depth of about one-sixty-fourth of an inch, Fenton said.

The waves, whose exact length, frequency and amplitude are classified, cause water molecules in the skin cells to vibrate. That rapidly produces heat and causes discomfort.

The invisible waves can pass through clothing but somehow do not penetrate beneath the skin layer, Fenton said. The result is that the heat irritates nerve sensors in the skin but does not damage internal or reproductive organs.

Fenton said the weapon's beam has no effect on electrical equipment, such as pacemakers or computers.

Project officials said the human body begins to feel pain at about 113 degrees Fahrenheit, about the temperature of a hot light bulb. The VMADS system could heat a target's skin up to about 130 degrees Fahrenheit in about two seconds, Fenton said.

The beam moves at the speed of light, said Maj. Noel D. Montgomery, chief of health-effects assessments at the directorate and a certified health physicist. A target could then be acquired and zapped in seconds.

Humans have been exposed more than 6,000 times in testing, all inside the laboratory, Fenton said. No long-term effects have been detected.

The dangers of electromagnetic waves for humans have been studied for years, and federal laws are in place to protect the public from being blasted by radio towers, television stations and the like.

The health threat varies according to body type and length of exposure, according to the Kansas-based Radiofrequency Safety International Corp., which helps civilian companies comply with the federal rules. Certain waves are virtually harmless to the human body, such as visible light, while microwaves are now used to cook food.

A team of scientists from across the country is being pulled together by Penn State University to study the technology and the human effects of research conducted by the directorate, Montgomery said.

Exceeding specs

According to unclassified briefing documents obtained by Marine Corps Times, many of the components used to develop a demonstrator for the weapon exceeded the specifications of the design. Details, however, were classified.

The weapon is powered by electricity and ultimately would be powered by the modified Humvee on which it would be mounted.

Keeping the weapon "loaded" would be as simple as filling the truck up with gas.

Demonstrator production began in 1998 but slipped behind in 2000 after the superconducting magnet at its core was delivered late and an output window on the radio frequency source was broken, according to the documents. The program was thrown off by eight to 10 months.

Now, a demonstration model is out of the lab and into the New Mexico desert, mounted above a standard shipping container and being calibrated for a series of public tests in March.

The success of those tests could determine whether the program survives.

Fenton said the Corps could have a Humvee-mounted prototype within two years.

The Defense Department has spent nearly $40 million over 10 years to develop the technology. Budget predictions from last year obtained by Marine Corps Times show another $26 million could be needed for development over the next five years.

The primary contractor for the project is Raytheon Missile Systems, with an award of nearly $16 million spread across several years for system integration on the demonstrator and prototypes, according to budget documents.

Raytheon officials declined to comment until a public announcement is made by the Marine Corps, which the company expected to be Feb. 26.

What critics might say

Pike, the space and military policy analyst, said new weapon technologies are likely to face skepticism when they're unveiled before the public.

The burden will be on the Pentagon to prove it's safe, he said.

"The tricky part is coming up with something that is annoying enough that people will skedaddle, but not so annoying that you would kill them," said Pike, who tracked space and military policies for more than 20 years at the Washington-based Federation of American Scientists before launching his Web site. "That is a pervasive problem with all crowd-control devices. . Is it simultaneously effective and nonlethal?"

Some critics are likely to suggest that the new technology could be adopted or adapted by civilian police forces. An Internet search for "RF weapon" yields a host of Web sites saying the government is already experimenting on humans with the technology and that the government's ultimate aim is to use it as a way to control its own people.

"It does have a kind of science fiction, phasers-set-to-stun ring to it," Pike said of the new technology. "It sure sounds like that, right?

"There's certainly a sub-population of people who believe the government is using microwaves for mind control. I get calls from them about once a week."

Fenton said he personally had been exposed to the beam - so he knows how much it can hurt, he said - and added that his directorate's legal team has been exploring the human-rights implications of the new weapon even as scientists have been exploring its human effects.

"I have nothing to hide," Fenton said. "This is a good news story. Our American public needs to understand that we have done our homework.

"We are really into the 21st-century way of doing business, and we are asking the right questions because we have learned from our past and we are making sure that we are moving forward."